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A CurtainUp Review
Ladies in Retirement

Pathetic is not next door to insane.— Leonora
Ladies In Retirement
Mikel Sarah Lambert
(Photo: Justin Richardson)
Based on a famous murder in France in the 1880s, Edward Percy and Reginald Denham's gothic thriller Ladies in Retirement premiered on Broadway in 1940 and was turned into a film starring Ida Lupino a year later. Pulse Ensemble Theatre has chosen this gripping drama as its first production for its 20th season and placed it under the praiseworthy direction of Amnon Kabatchnik.

Ladies in Retirement is the kind of cozy-house-in-the-English-countryside kind of thriller Agatha Christie might have written if she had been more interested in frightening rather than teasing her readers. Almost from the moment retired music hall actress Leonora Fiske (the Drama Desk nominated Mikel Sarah Lambert) walks into her Victorian living room (Jhanna Gurvich's meticulous set is complete with fireplace, grandfather clock, Jesus icon, piano and a window on the garden), it's evident that evil lurks in the well-dusted corners and under the polished tables.

Leonora has a housekeeper/companion, Ellen Creed (Camille Mazurek), who is overly devoted to two impoverished and dotty sisters, Louisa (Hanna Hayes) and Emily (Carol Lambert) who are unhappy and homeless in London. Ellen asks Leonora if her sisters can come for a short visit. Four months later, Leonora has had enough of the old women's outlandish behavior and demands they leave.

Ellen is desperate. The house is secluded. Leonora is trusting. Murder is in the air. But will it remain secret? Will consciences remain hushed? Will evil triumph?

There's no butler in this thriller, but there is a pert young parlor maid named Lucy (Ashley Taylor) who catches the eye of the Creed's nephew, the roguish crook, Albert (Burt Grinstead). And if the civil law never makes an actually entrance, the higher law is represented by Sister Theresa (Susan Barrett), a nun from the neighboring priory who provides the link with the outer, saner world.

Pulse Ensemble Theatre has gone to formidable lengths to make this very stock thriller into a little gem. The period costumes are eye-catching and appropriate, and the set elicits applause as soon as the curtain rises. But most of all, Kabatchnik has assembled a first-rate cast that keeps the action moving so swiftly the 2 hours 20 minute production seems far briefer than many a tedious one-act.

Lambert's performance has so much of the grand dame about it one almost expects to see Helen Hayes sweep across the stage, or perhaps Isobel Elsom, the original Leonora. Lambert is lovable, na´ve, self-centered and firm in a most convincing way. But her character is no match for Mazurek's Ellen, a woman who, until the very end, exhibits nerves of steel and a will of iron.

Hayes and Lambert are both irritating and insanely funny as the sisters who cause all the trouble. Yet their antics are so real one might want to see them strangled or drowned in the Thames if they weren't necessary to the plot and such great fun to watch.

Grinstead hold his own as the only male onstage. Lucy may not have much else to choose from, but it's easy to see why she is attracted to this wastrel.

Although Ladies in Retirement is a piece of light entertainment, it also gives the audience a deeper insight into the plight of spinsters before our age of enlightenment. When Ellen asks the former chorus girl, "Don't you owe a debt to virtue?" and Leonora responds, "How could a dried-up old spinster understand my life?" we understand the limited possibilities open to women of the Victorian age. But the only lesson one need keep in mind when watching Ladies in Retirement is Crime Does Not Pay.

Ladies in Retirement
By Edward Percy & Reginald Denham
Directed by Amnon Kabatchnik
Cast: Ashley Taylor (Lucy Gilham), Mikel Sarah Lambert (Leonora Fiske), Camille Mazurek (Ellen Creed), Burt Grinstead (Albert Feather), Hanna Hayes (Louisa Creed), Carol Lambert (Emily Creed), Susan Barrett (Sister Theresa), Ralph Newman (Bates, the Coachman)
Set Design: Jhanna Gurvich
Lighting Design: Steve O'Shea
Costume Design: Angela M. Kahler
Sound Design: Louis Lopardi
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, one intermission
Pulse Ensemble Theatre at Theatre 3, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor
From 3/9/10; closing 4/03/10
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 3 PM through April 3rd. Monday, March 8 @ 8 PM
Tickets: $25
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 14, 2010
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